Minimum Wage and the Stingy South African Employer

Should the proposed National Minimum Wage of R20 an hour (R3500 per month) be implemented, around 6.6 million people will benefit.

We should take a moment and allow that to settle in our souls; an estimated 6.6 million people earn less than R20 an hour. R160 per day. And get this, I know people who know people who are paying R11 an hour with no contribution to transport. R88 per day with up to half of that lost to transport. R44 a day. Most of these people are domestic workers who care for our children, our elderly and our homes. We entrust our loved ones and our most valuable assets to people we pay somewhere between R50 and R120 per day. There are a few unavoidable consequences when people are impoverished and demeaned in this way. Here are a few of them – I am sure you will think of some more:
  1. People live with unimaginably high levels of stress
  2. People resort to debt simply to live
  3. People steal and engage in other criminal behaviours to survive
  4. People may turn to alcohol and abuse of other substances as hopelessness sets in and they lose the ability to dream.
  5. Loyalty and work ethic often diminish
  6. Anger and resentment build
And yet I know people who know people who are resisting paying their staff well despite all this. And we must remember that the word ‘minimum’ is just that; a minimum. We should be striving to pay significantly above this. When The Peace Agency began the first Baby Home in Durban, South Africa we resolved that one of our key objectives as an NGO was to pay our team of staff a poverty-busting wage. One year, we doubled each staff member’s salary and from then on, everyone received at least one, sometimes two significant increases a year. Everyone always gets a 13th cheque. Yes, this means that as an NGO we can “do less” in terms of babies. But the reality is that we are caring for more people. As a team, everyone feels dignified and empowered. This dignity and empowerment – not to mention resources – is then imparted outside of the workplace in our families and communities.  Not only that, but because we are well cared for as a team, we can care well for the babies in return. People want to work at the Durban North Baby Home. If we cannot afford to pay at least the minimum wage, then we cannot afford to start companies or NGO’s, and we cannot afford domestic staff. Poorly paid work is not better than no work at all as it destroys people’s humanity and hence the very fabric of society.

The Cold Within

There is a poem called “The Cold Within” that was written in the 1960’s by then unknown American poet James Patrick Kinney.

I first heard this poem quoted by our former Public Protector Professor Thuli Madonsela, but apparently it is quite well known the world over. What struck me about it was the fact that it could so easily have been written about us here in South Africa in 2018. It is challenging, painful and beautiful and – as the various 2019 election campaigns begin to polarise and divide us – it deserves our full attention: Six humans trapped by happenstance In bleak and bitter cold. Each one possessed a stick of wood Or so the story’s told. Their dying fire in need of logs The first man held his back For of the faces round the fire He noticed one was black.  The next man looking ‘cross the way Saw one not of his church And couldn’t bring himself to give The fire his stick of birch.  The third one sat in tattered clothes. He gave his coat a hitch. Why should his log be put to use To warm the idle rich?  The rich man just sat back and thought Of the wealth he had in store And how to keep what he had earned From the lazy shiftless poor.  The black man’s face bespoke revenge As the fire passed from his sight. For all he saw in his stick of wood Was a chance to spite the white.  The last man of this forlorn group Did nought except for gain. Giving only to those who gave Was how he played the game.  Their logs held tight in death’s still hands Was proof of human sin. They didn’t die from the cold without They died from the cold within.  The poem is so powerful because it places us together around a fire – usually a space for friends.  But the fire is dying and so are we. It begs for us to find our common humanity – that which will save our lives – and share what we have with one another; our kindness, our time, our resources – regardless of our differences.    

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit Part 2

This monthly feature is our response to the President’s invitation: “Thuma Mina – Send Me”. It is a toolkit of ideas to help our readers respond to that call.

In 2007, I returned from the UK having spent 6 incredible years living and working in London. Virtually as my plane touched down naysayers began questioning my decision: Why on earth had I come back? Hadn’t I heard that we were “going the way of Zimbabwe”? I had all this buzzing around in my head when – out on a Comrades training run up near the Kruger National Park – I greeted an old man carrying wood on his head. His reaction changed my life forever and set me on a brand new path. He stopped dead in his tracks (as did I, which isn’t difficult when I am running) and stared at me like I was nuts. I wondered fleetingly if I had offended him, but my fears were soon allayed as a huge, craggy smile broke out on his old face. We smiled warmly and greeted one another and in that moment a bridge was built between two very different human beings; one old; one privileged; one white; one rural. It was a bridge that I knew in my spirit was strong and permanent; it was a moment when I knew beyond all doubt that love was the beginning and end of all faith; the beginning and end of all life and purpose and the true meaning of truth, reconciliation and healing. My experience with that old man stood in stark contrast to the naysayers who had been so negative on my return. To the two of us, South Africa was indeed alive with possibility. This experience birthed a campaign called Stop Crime Say Hello. The thinking is that peace creation is an active process that we must all participate in daily with simple acts of kindness and bridge building. By doing this we slowly begin to chip away at the culture of violence that has been put in place over decades of disrespect for one another. As a call to action, Thuma Mina is so simple. It can and perhaps must begin with small actions repeated often; actions such as greeting people – especially those who are different to us – as we go about our daily lives. I guess the hardest part is slowing down for long enough to really see humanity in all its wondrous complexity and beauty and brokenness all around us. Because healing doesn’t happen in a hurry and bridges take time to build. The call is to do something – however small – to make a difference in one life at a time. I would love to dialogue with you around the call of Thuma Mina – Send me. You can contact me on (

Learn to Be Peace

“The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.” Thich Nhat Hanh – Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar and human rights activist

The recent story of Dr Lisa Augustine took me back to 2007. I remember it clearly; wandering round an old Natal Midlands farmstead with Cathy, chatting to the farmer’s wife about their business; a weaving operation. The subject turned to safety in the area and we were regaled with one of the most astonishing tales of humanity that I have ever heard. Dr Augustine of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is also a weaver of sorts. That day she left the orthopaedic ward late. She was on her way home when she was set upon by attackers. The weavers were weaving peacefully when a gang of hopped-up young men entered their workshop yelling, brandishing all manner of weaponry and demanding “all the money”. The weavers were simple folk but the young men would not listen to this and attacked the husband with an axe. He was wounded but not fatally. Again, the wife explained that there was no money but that they had some food and she would be glad to prepare them something if they were hungry. This disarmed the young men somewhat. Suddenly – with this offer of kindness in the form of food – there appeared to be more than one possible ending to this encounter. The doctor’s attackers threatened to shoot her if she did not hand over her cell phone.  In her exhausted state she did something that she later felt may have been unwise; she looked one of them in the eye and explained that she had been working hard all day at the hospital helping his community. It was probably her tone more than anything she said, but the man immediately changed his tune: “And suddenly the hostility vanished. He seemed to soften and his body language changed from being very aggressive. He apologised,” explained Dr Augustine who then gave him R40. The attackers left without hurting her.   Peace The weavers and the Doctor said similar things about their attacks; that their attackers were probably just desperate. The question is, desperate for what? If we could answer this, then we would be a huge step closer to establishing a peaceful society. And we need to move beyond money, food, greed etc. These are only partial answers that trap us at the level of the material. We must be willing to venture into the darker spaces of human suffering. Until we go there, non-violence can only ever be a pipe-dream. In 1967, Dr Martin Luther King Jr nominated the above quoted monk for the Nobel Peace Prize. The reason for this – as I see his work – is that he seems to provide us with the beginnings of an answer to this question – what are people so desperate for? He tells us that peace begins with each of us “being peace” as he calls it. We cannot fight for peace; we cannot create peace; we can only learn to “be peace.” How does this answer the question of what people are desperate for? Quite simply because hurt people hurt people. The only way to end the cycle of desperation that leads inevitably to violence is to be peace to people and we only do that by living lives that are – in themselves – a love letter to humanity and to the world at large; a constant cycle of healing and being healed. You see, people – all people whether poor or rich – are desperate for connection; for love and belonging. After several hours of food and conversation, the weavers helped the young men to load their possessions into the family car. They were to lose a great deal but their lives would not be taken. However, just as things seemed to be working out for the best, it became evident that none of the youngsters could drive a car. This caused tempers to once again flare. The weavers then did the only logical thing they could think of under the circumstances; they taught one of the boys to drive. Like parents, they patiently explained the workings of the clutch and gears and it was not long before they stood atop their driveway and watched as their assailants drove their car and possessions off into the distance. The boys were caught before they left the midlands. The weavers continue to weave and Doctor Augustine continues to help people get well   The world continues, but with a little less blood spilt. This is simply because the weavers and Dr Augustine decided to be peace. “The way you speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language you use…. without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement,” Thich Nhat Hanh.  Although this is radically counter-cultural – especially in western civilization – it will resonate deeply with us if we allow it. And the world will be a better place. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.